Author: johnhawthorne

Time for new thinking about religion

I defended my dissertation 35 years ago next month. The focus was on what I called Attending NonMembers: people who regularly attended church but never joined. People fit my categorization is they had attended at least once a month for six months or more. Part of the project was simply to quantify the size of this population (somewhere about 10% of a local congregation’s attenders in 1983). As part of the research, I was forced to consider the relative importance of attendance vs. membership. Many pastors I interviewed jokingly said they were interested in how to get members to attend. I concluded that attendance was a more salient variable than membership when it came to understanding religious commitment.

My theoretical framework for the research drew from organizational dynamics and pressures to conform to institutional expectations. I posited that people felt the expectations of congregational life and would therefore live in a place of discomfort when they couldn’t meet expectations of membership. After all, people like Dean Kelley had been arguing that demanding something worthwhile was a key component of commitment and that’s why conservative denominations grew where liberal denominations did not. My research showed that people didn’t actually feel pressure to join, even from the pastor. (This was before the rise of the nondenominational and megachurch movements allowing anonymous presence as spectators to the show of the morning.)

I’ve returned to thoughts about the dissertation in recent weeks. New data from Pew Research released two weeks ago showed that Trump supporters were increasingly likely to define themselves as evangelicals when they didn’t in 2016. As they report,

[a]mong White respondents (including both voters and nonvoters) who did not identify as evangelicals in 2016 and who expressed a warm view of Trump at some point during the timespan of this study, 16% began describing themselves as born-again or evangelical Protestants by 2020. 

One doesn’t need to join a church to declare oneself “evangelical or born again”. It’s simply an affirmative response to a somewhat vague survey question. But the Pew findings about pro-Trump religious identification suggest that what’s being claimed is more of an identity marker than a statement of religious commitment. While disappointing, this isn’t surprising. A careful review of polling data over the last several years has shown very similar political positions adopted by white self-identified evangelicals and Republicans in general.

In response to the Pew data, Ryan Burge (Twitter’s most prolific data analyst) shared data on the likelihood that Republicans would identify as evangelicals. Not only are Republicans more likely than Independents or Democrats to identify as evangelicals, but this was true regardless of attendance patterns.

This shows that fully half of Republicans who seldom attended church identified as evangelicals. Around a third of Republicans who NEVER attend church claim an evangelical identity.

In another analysis, Ryan explored attendance patterns among self-identified evangelicals. In 2008, 70.8% of evangelicals would have met my once a month threshold that I considered to be a minimum for congregational involvement. By 2020, the comparable figure was just 59.8%.

At the very least, these data points suggest that there is limited value in continuing to break out White Evangelicals as a separate category in public opinion surveys. The data picks up something but the extent to which that reflects religious commitments in fuzzy at best. (We really need survey data that explores theological beliefs beyond a commitment to inerrancy!)

If evangelical status is shifting to some kind of identity marker somewhat separate from congregational life, it raises serious questions about the whole “conservative churches are growing” argument. Kelley’s original argument was looking at membership and what was expected of members of conservative churches. Sociologists like Rodney Stark, William Sims Bainbridge, and Roger Finke picked up this theme, arguing that there is an exchange relationship between deep commitments and organizational vitality.

This argument is still popular. A friend from Michigan shared this recent piece by Tim Keller. It is a recapitulation of Kelley’s position from nearly 50 years ago. Keller summarize the argument:

Kelley argued that conservative churches continued to focus mainly on spiritual needs and supernatural “largest-scale” cosmic meanings—the reality of God, the truth of Jesus’ resurrection, the power of the Holy Spirit for inward change, the efficacy of Jesus’ death for the forgiveness of sins, the eventual arrival of the kingdom of God.

Again, there is declining evidence that self-identified evangelicals are thinking about cosmic meanings. It is far more likely that they are driven by concerns about the changing demands of the here and now. While Kelley and Keller would accuse the mainline church as being concerned with contemporary culture, it is the conservative church that is fighting culture wars. While I lack data on this, my casual observation is that mainline churches have deepened their theological and ecclesial commitments over recent decades.

This move toward political engagement, culture war advocacy, and Covid denialism has an impact on many within the conservative church. While these numbers aren’t large (according to the Pew report above), it does suggest a missing theoretical perspective in thinking about religious commitment.

There is an idea in social psychology that when attempts at persuasion push so hard as to limit individual freedom, the result is reactance. Not only is there resistance to the persuasive appeal, there is actually a movement in the opposite direction.

Listening to podcasts like Gangster Capitalism’s reporting on Jerry Falwell, Jr. or Christianity Today’s reporting on Mark Driscoll in The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill suggest the discomfort that results from that pressure. Following reporting on the Southern Baptist Convention trying to respond (or not) to sexual abuse in their ranks has similar effects. “Being Conservative” is not enough. While some short-term good comes these institutions, the longer-term harm is concerning.

Last week, Scot McKnight wrote a piece in his newsletter titled “Deconstruction’s Three Phases.” It’s well worth the read. But here is the Cliff’s Notes version. The first phase he calls Liminality. This is a period where one feels slightly off kilter in the conservative church. It’s a feeling of not belonging. The second phase is Elimination. In this period, one strips away all the extras attempting to hold on to an authentic faith. In my review of millennial evangelical memoirs three years ago, I saw this pattern clearly play out. The writers distanced from church and prior patterns and clung to Jesus. That provided their way back. Scot’s third phase is Liberation. He says that this is a period in which one’s personality takes the fore and there is an attempt to reconcile faith in a new environment. I’m not sure this is as negative as he suggests, but I agree with his conclusion.

These deconstructors become, in other words, re-constructors. They reconstruct their Christian faith from the foundations up and they slowly, carefully lay one brick on another until they form a Christian faith that they find consistent with Jesus and what the church should and can be (all over again).

All of this leaves me trying to rethink religious paradigms I’ve held for decades. Where should our focus be? Are we concerned with documenting the political orientation of self-identified evangelicals? is there a way to value a variety of religious expressions, avoiding the triumphalism of either conservative or mainline churches? What is the role of theology is shaping attitudes (not just prooftexting a favorite scripture)? Where are the religious institutions that will truly assist individuals in working through McKnight’s deconstruction process to live faithfully in a confusing and conflicted culture?

Young Evangelicals and Same-Sex Marriage: A Brief Research Note

When I retired from teaching, I lost my access to SPSS and could no longer play around with data sets. Having time on my hands, it seemed like a good time to get a new statistical package — STATA 17 — and get back into the game (thanks to Westmont sociologist Blake Victor Kent for the endorsement!). I’ve always found that the best way to learn a new statistical package was just to dive in. Thankfully, the Association of Religion Data Archives has a treasure-trove of data sets available for further exploration.

A recent addition to the ARDA archive was a 2017 survey PRRI conducted with support from MTV. The survey focused on youth in their teens and early 20s. It asked interesting questions about discrimination and support for same-sex marriage. After some initial exploration of the data, I focused in on white self-identified evangelicals. This subgroups is almost evenly divided between young Millennials and older GenZ. There is a measurable difference between these two groups of young people when it comes to support for same-sex marriage: while 31.5% of the millennials support SSM, the figure for GenZ rises to 52.4%.

I began by testing a version of the standard Contact Hypothesis as it relates to intergroup relations. In the 1950s, Gordon Allport argued that bias can be combatted through equal contact between differing groups. The PRRI data set had questions about the nature of differing friendships (including having gay friends or family members) and it was possible to contrast those with attitudes toward same-sex marriage. The initial results of this exploration are below.

Those with gay friends are more than twice as likely to support same-sex marriage as those who have no gay friends of family. Interestingly, only three in ten of those with gay family members support SSM. Granted, the n is very small and the question doesn’t distinguish between immediate and extended family.

After exploring a number of factors in a similar two-dimensional fashion, it became clear that I needed to use a multivariate approach given the ways the various factors might interact. To do so, I had to teach myself how to do logistic regression on a dichotomous variable. The results for logistic regression are given in “odds ratios” for each variable independent of the effects of other variables in the equation. An odds ratio less than one has a diminishing impact on the dependent variable and anything over one increases the likelihood of the dependent variable.

Following an instructional video for Stata logistic regression processes, I added batches of variables that plausibly would relate to support for or opposition to same-sex marriage. A number of factors I thought would be of interest washed out as not being statistically significant: gender, region, generation. I also played around with various ways of splitting categorical variables – weekly attendance wasn’t significant nor was some college or being a democrat (largely because the number of democrats was so small in the WEV population). With all my playing around, I was able to come up with a pretty robust equation that speaks to levels of support for same-sex marriage. The results follow.

I’m still learning how to interpret this stuff, but I find it pretty interesting. Overall, the equation does a decent job of explaining the variability of support for same-sex marriage (the R squared for survey data is pretty good). Looking at the odds ratios, three factors significantly decrease support for same-sex marriage: attending church two or more times a week (only 1/8 the level of support), being a republican (cutting support by nearly 3/4ths), and believing that evangelicals face social discrimination (decreasing support by nearly 2/3rds). Conversely, earning a BA or higher more than triples the likelihood of supporting same-sex marriage. Having a gay friend quadruples support. I should note here that this is very consistent with earlier pieces I have written about anecdotal support for same-sex marriage at Christian colleges.

In addition to the equation and odds ratios, additional output allows examination of how well the predicted variables perform relative to actual responses. As the bottom of the chart shows, the equation correctly classified over 3/4ths of the cases. I kept trying new things to see if I could drive this figure up, but am fairly satisfied with progress to date.

I’m trusting my statistically savvy readers to correct any errors I’ve made in logic or statistical analysis. For now, I think it is pretty interesting data and look forward to further testing with other data sets.

Charles Lindbergh and “Religion”

I just finished reading Chris Gehrz’s Charles Lindbergh: A Religious Biography of America’s Most Infamous Pilot, which releases 8/17. All I really knew about Lindbergh was that he flew across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927, their son was kidnapped/murdered a few years later, and that he was the antagonist in Phillip Roth’s The Plot Against America that HBO ran last year

Chris’ book is part of Eerdman’s Library of Religious Biography. According to the website, the series “brings to life important figures in United States history .. [linking] .. the lives of their subjects to the broader cultural contexts and religious issues that surrounded them.” What makes the Lindbergh book somewhat unique is that the pilot had little use of religion as we normally think of it. That makes this “religious” biography appear to be a negation of the significance of religion in modern life, at least on the surface.

And yet, the book requires us to think more carefully about what constitutes religion. That thinking, in turn, opens up a number of contemporary issues. Examining Lindbergh’s thought offers glimpses of the religious mindset present in Christian Nationalism, White Supremacy, Critical Race Theory, and Economic Inequality.

As Chris describes in the opening pages, Lindbergh is a forerunner of the “spiritual but not religious.” He had little interest in organized religion, rarely went to church, and was devoted to science. There were religious friends, some quite zealous, but he had little room for their strand of religion. Yes Lindbergh had religious influences, but at the heart of his thought was the belief that he could make sense of things on his own. Many times, especially in the second half of the book, I found myself remembering Robert Bellah and friends describing “Sheilaism” in Habits of the Heart. Sheila had said:

I believe in God. I’m not a religious fanatic. I can’t remember the last time I went to church. My faith has carried me a long way. It’s Sheilaism. Just my own little voice (2008: 221).

When Lindbergh reflects upon the “mysterious beings” that he said were with him in the middle of the flight across the Atlantic or when he describes his environmental concerns later in life (which Chris identifies as close to panentheism), it seemed he was putting things together in his own religious concoction. It is also present when he desires to quote Jesus’ “wisdom” without a broader theology. This is far from what we normally think of as religion.

Yet I found myself rethinking this critique at many spots along the Lindbergh journey. Perhaps I was relying too much upon substantive definitions of religion instead of more functional understandings. About a third of the way through the book, as “the miracle of flight” was becoming a reality, I found myself reflecting on Emile Durkheim’s view of religion.

Religion, to Durkheim, was “a unified system of beliefs and practices around sacred things…”. And what was the sacred? Those things that are over and above individual daily life (the profane). What does this mean for the first man to take a solo flight across the ocean? I found myself taking this very literally. There was something about being in the air that was sacred for Lindbergh. He contrasts this with the people on the ground when he’s flying in the South Pacific during the War.

In another case, Lindbergh’s belief in the superiority of White Western Civilization in contrast with more primitive groups appears as a near religious devotion to the special case (he writes of quality not equality). His support for Eugenics is part of the same ideology. It is not too much to argue that for Lindbergh, Western Civilization was sacred and other parts of the world (including Asiatic Russians) were lesser.

These are the same sentiments that have a Tucker Carlson fawning over Hungary’s “freedoms” and have politicians decrying the teaching of America’s racial history (under the guise of concern over “Critical Race Theory”). American civilization (epitomized by America First) is sacred. Dealing with inequality, racism, or ethnic diversity means celebrating the profane rather than recognizing the sacred character of “our” civilization. The storming of the US Capital on January 6 was, to the supporters, needed to protect the sacred character of America.

Chris addresses these concerns in a wonderful afterward, reflecting on the deaths of Philando Castile and George Floyd in light of the centrality of White Supremacy to Lindbergh and his ilk. Understanding how someone like Charles Lindbergh constructed his “religious worldview” gives us a lens into how our fellow citizens are constructing their own views around their personal commitments to what they claim as sacred.

It’s disappointing that none of Lindbergh’s more religious friends were able to have an impact on him. And it’s even more disappointing that we seem incapable of reaching our own contemporaries with the broader claims of the Kingdom of God.

The Equality Act, Christian Colleges, and LGBTQ+ Inclusion

Back in March, the House of Representatives passed the Equality Act extending civil rights protections to gay and transgender Americans. Passing on a nearly party line vote (3 Republicans joined the Democrats), it moves to the Senate for consideration. As the linked text shows, the legislation bans discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity (SOGI) in hiring, housing, and public accommodations like restaurants.

Christian college leaders and conservative legal groups have raised ongoing concerns about the legislation. Some would prefer the Freedom For All legislation based on what is known as the Utah Compromise. FFA would extend civil rights protections to LGBTQ+ individuals on the above issues but carve out a religious exemption that leaves churches and religious organizations like Christian Colleges exempt from the impact of the nondiscrimination law. It’s kind of a stretch to call this a compromise, since the religious groups would not be giving anything up. Of course, some religious groups oppose even the FFA as they see any recognition of LGBTQ+ populations as a slippery slope that must be avoided at all costs.

The primary concern from conservative Christian leaders is that the bill that passed the House denies them protections under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. In other words, there would no longer be a presumption of a set-aside for religious groups. Numerous Christian college presidents have claimed that should the Equality Act become law, it would mean that the schools could no longer pursue their mission, would be required to allow transgender students to live in dorms consistent with their gender identity, and deny students access to Pell Grants and Subsidized Student Loans (based on an interpretation of the 70s-era Bob Jones University decision).

To be fair, most of these leaders also go out of their way to affirm that all people reflect the image of God. In doing so, however, they tend to rely on scriptural interpretation that supports their prior claims. For example, reference to Genesis 1: 27 says “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them (NIV).” But where the focus could be on the created image in all, these leaders place priority on the last clause, effectively negating the broader intent. This clause is used to eliminate the legitimacy of the transgender population. Similar defenses are raised with regard to Matthew 19: 6, when Jesus quotes the Genesis passage and explains that “a man will leave his father and mother and be united with his wife and the two shall become one flesh (NIV).” The literal focus on men and women actually takes away from the focus on long-term commitment, especially since the context of the chapter is about divorce.

Yet under the guise of the nebulous “deeply held religious beliefs” religious freedom protections are claimed. Never mind that these very verses would be deeply meaningful to a same-sex couple who has decided to make a lifelong commitment. Because “we believe the Bible” can be used to trump other arguments.

Christian colleges would do well to pay more attention to the theological frameworks that are deeply held by queer Christians. It would go a long way toward actual engagement, if these leaders were serious about celebrating the Imago Dei and resulting dignity of all.

There is another problem with the claims made by Christian College leaders. They are based on the assumption that the Equality Act that passed the House will pass the Senate in its current form. A refresher from Schoolhouse Rock seems to be in order. The Senate is divided 50-50 and the Equality Act will not be considered without the support of 60 senators to overcome cloture. That is practically impossible to accomplish and the RFRA protections would almost certainly be added back. But opposing the Equality Act is useful in demonstrating one’s conservative credentials, keeping donors and trustees happy, and positioning the college as fighting the good fight in the culture wars.

Let’s play out their concerns about the Equality Act a little further. What would happen if RFRA protections were not present? It would open the door for discrimination lawsuits against religious organizations. It would be up to the courts to determine the ability of Christian Colleges to maintain what they believe are mission-central policies. As Mark Silk has observed, the current Supreme Court is the most friendly to religious freedom arguments in recent history and is especially favorable to conservative Christianity. During the Covid pandemic, SCOTUS has decided against the state in favor of religious groups in nearly every case, creating new requirements that go far beyond what the 1990 Smith decision held regarding “generally applicable laws.” Religion seems poised to win most cases of external restrictions placed upon religious organizations.

It’s worth considering that the real impetus for change regarding LGBTQ+ inclusion at Christian Colleges and religious organizations comes not from the force of government but from within their own constituencies.

Recent developments have shown how ignoring the internal question may no longer be possible. Four weeks ago a group of 35 current and former Christian College students sued the Department of Education over the practice of granting religious exemptions to existing nondiscrimination laws. Their lawsuit documents the variety of ways that the policies of the schools led directly to discriminatory harm for these students, including bullying and required counseling. I haven’t heard any updates since the original stories but I expect the number of individuals joining the class action suit to grow in coming months.

This lawsuit alleging discrimination based on SOGI status is particularly fraught in light of the SCOTUS’ 6-3 Bostock decision. In an opinion authored by Trump appointee Neil Gorsuch, it ruled that employment discrimination based on sexual orientation was a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. While biblical interpretation may pass muster under broad religious liberty claims, discrimination potentially will be seen differently by the court.

I recently read Oklahoma State sociologist Jonathan Coley’s Gay on God’s Campus — a sociological examination of how students at four religious schools (Goshen, Belmont, Catholic U, and Loyola-Chicago) advocated for LGBTQ+ engagement. While the patterns differed somewhat across the schools and the interviews, it was clear that the gay students at those schools had picked them because of their religious commitments. In fact, it seemed to me that the very nature of the Christian community fostered by those schools allowed students a safe transition to come out to their friends and family.

It is also true that LGBTQ+ inclusion has become important to many others in the student population. I’ve often reminded people that Massachusetts legalized same-sex marriage in 2004, when today’s college seniors were five years old. Straight allies have had gay friends at school for most of their lives.

Change is bubbling up on Christian College campuses, whether the leaders want it to come or not. After an adjunct faculty member was denied a full-time position at Seattle Pacific for being in a same-sex relationship, students and faculty pushed for a revision in the school’s human sexuality statement. The trustees refused to consider revising the statement and the student paper advocated for dramatic steps in reaction including discouraging donors and suggesting students sit out the fall 2021 semester. Nearly three-quarters of the faculty supported a no-confidence motion directed toward the trustees.

There’s an interesting anecdote in Jonathan Coley’s book. Belmont had long held the same “traditional” stance on sexuality that other Christian Colleges had held. The student organization that had formed in support of LGBTQ+ inclusion had argued that Christian schools should be places where tolerance and community are key. When a particularly influential donor and trustee took those arguments seriously, it resulted in a change in trustee policy. Not only has Belmont not suffered as a result of this change, it is known as one of the thriving educational institutions in the Nashville area.

It raises the possibility that Christian Colleges can find a path to LGBTQ+ inclusion. Rather than seeing the Equality Act as a cause to be battled against, they could see it as the potential path to new students who want a vibrant, faith-based education but refuse to put up with discrimination as a key component of the Christian College. There really isn’t any market distinctive to be gained by being just as intransigent as every other Christian College. Change won’t happen without struggle, but brave leadership (or, in its absence, action by students and faculty) can make real progress happen.

Christian Liberal Arts Institutions: Promise and Reality

My first book, which came out seven years ago, was written for freshmen entering Christian Colleges. Far too many books at the time were warning students about how college could threaten their faith and I wanted to provide an alternative view. Instead of seeing higher education as threatening, it could be seen as a means for growth in a mutually reinforcing faith and learning. That this could happen in the midst of an environment where students, faculty, administrators, and staff were exploring the large implications of their faith lives in service to God.

I confess that the book was much more aspirational than descriptive. Given stints at five Christian institutions as both faculty member and administrator, I saw glimmers of what I’d hoped for at times. Other times, I worked to push back on old narratives about secular schools, the dangers of reading difficult material, and always catering to the most conservative elements of the constituency.

Reviewing news reports regarding Christian Liberal Arts Institutions over the last couple of years has brought me to the unhappy conclusion that not only is my aspirational vision for Christian Higher Ed not broadly embraced, but it is farther away today than it was when I wrote the book. Liam Adams has done excellent reporting on the ways Christian Colleges have modified their programming and reduced staff and faculty positions as a means of responding to budget challenges. While Liam’s stories focus on changes prompted by the uncertainties of the COVID pandemic, what he reports is simply an acceleration of trends that had started years before.

In part, this is due to serious demographic challenges. There simply aren’t enough high school graduates out there to populate the slots Christian colleges hope for. College costs are a challenge for many families. Adult programs, which once were big revenue streams, have been crashing. Online competition is fierce and dominated by the big players. Most significantly, the percentage of students identifying as evangelical is shrinking rapidly. All of these factors, and others, have created a greater sense of competition between Christian Colleges. No longer able to rely on denominational loyalty, the institutions have added majors in high demand areas and innovative athletic teams (fishing and trap shooting are two of my favorite additions).

Yet the solutions institutions have advanced have come at the cost of a significant shift in mission. The faculty reductions have disproportionately come in the humanities and social science areas. At the high point of my time in my last institution, there were 44 faculty members in the eight departments of history, psychology, sociology, art, music, religion, english, and communication. In the fall of 2021, that number will be 22. It is true that the total number of faculty has declined somewhat, but in general those liberal arts positions have been replaced by programs with a greater vocational focus: social work, nursing, engineering, sports medicine, and the like.

In many ways, it’s hard to argue with these changes. They are couched in a Weberian rationality that relies on fairness, measures, and return on investment. I saw the seeds of this in my administrative days as conferences celebrated with work of people like Robert Dickeson, whose Prioritizing Academic Programs and Services laid out a model for comparing credit hours, number of majors/graduates, and faculty positions. It was very academic, so faculty would buy in. Besides, comparative institutions were making cuts far deeper, so cheer up — it could be worse.

Administrators will respond that they haven’t shifted away from their liberal arts commitments, pointing to general education requirements students must fulfill. Even those schools with an integrated core have substituted “critical thinking” and a distributed smattering of introductory classes for a more robust understanding of liberal arts. In a post while I was working on the book, I wrote:

Liberal Arts is a perspective on life. It’s not the range of courses we’re talking about. Those are only the raw materials with which liberal arts works. It is understanding multiple perspectives, yes, but more importantly it’s about the connections across the perspectives.

This suggests that Liberal Arts is embodied and not simply a matter of course content. It happens when a history major and an economics major discuss current events over dinner. It happens when a chemistry professor and a sociology professor discuss the implications of Ayn Rand. It happens when students work to reconcile what they’ve heard from faculty members who, though both beloved, have very different perspectives. [In my first institution, students organized a forum with me and a new testament scholar representing a progressive position and an economist and historian representing a (very) conservative position. I’ve always thought of it as the height of liberal arts.]

The long-term implications of a move away from Liberal Arts are profound. Recent surveys on the number of church people who are supporting Qanon conspiracies — or elements of those views — are alarming. Katelyn Beaty wrote a great analysis in Religion News Service that was picked up by a variety of other sources, including NPR. She writes:

Jared Stacy said the spread of conspiracy theories in his church is particularly affecting young members. The college and young adult pastor of Spotswood Baptist Church in Fredericksburg, Virginia, Stacy said some older members are sharing Facebook content that links the coronavirus to Jeffrey Epstein and secret pedophile rings. He says his and other pastors’ job is to teach that conspiracy theories are not where Christians should find a basis for reality.

I have written elsewhere that this challenge doesn’t simply fall to evangelical church pastors. It requires the congregation itself to have robust conversations about what is true, what is trustworthy, and what is distortion. Imagine the impact that graduates from Christian Liberal Arts Institutions could have on their local churches! A major theory of millennial disaffection with religion places conservative politics at its center. If graduates were empowered to take their learnings back to their church, they would be tremendous resources for healthy congregation (and provide them with more reason to stay engaged).

Yesterday, James McGrath shared his concerns about a young man who had been in his youth group in the 1980s. How had this young man moved so deep into conspiracy circles? Today, Fred Clark shared similar perspectives on how a focus on end-times conspiracies of Hal Lindsey created a worldview that saw conspiracy and oppression as normal.

Alan Noble has regularly advocated for the more hopeful vision that I’ve been suggesting. In his vision of what is possible,

[w]e should want Christian colleges and universities to be successful so that they can do critical work assisting local churches and communities in strengthening our foundations and providing lasting, meaningful relief from some of the crises that plague our time.

For example, as our society struggles mightily to maintain the basic level of public discourse necessary for a democracy, Christian schools can provide room for robust and charitable debate over ideas that matter, as I have previously argued at CT.

Last week, Alan tweeted a selection from Michael Sandel’s new book (which I need to read). Sandel said that the purpose of higher education was “to prepare [students] to be morally reflective human beings and effective democratic citizens, capable of deliberating about the common good.”

The motto of the first institution I served is “Education with a Christian Purpose”. I’ll never forget a faculty meeting where a communications scholar from Wheaton challenged us on what that meant. Was the focus on Education or Christian? If Christian, as opposed to what other purpose? I’m not picking on them — most school mottoes don’t hold up to detailed scrutiny.

At the other end of my career as a now retired Christian college professor, I find myself thinking more about that faculty meeting. It seems that “Christian” has become a generic identifier of what Christian Liberal Arts Institutions are. As long as we contrast with the larger society and its secular institutions, we can claim fealty to mission. But along the way, we’ve substituted Liberal Arts for generic critical thinking. We’ve operated the university as any other institutional form with a bottom line to cover.

Even “Christian” becomes circumscribed in particular ways. Gordon College is going to court on Monday to argue that all faculty are ministers, suggesting a parallel to monastic structures. This is part of Gordon’s defense against a discrimination claim brought by a faculty member who didn’t support the school’s stance on LGBTQ issues. At precisely the time when young evangelicals want a robust conversation about how LGBTQ students are welcomed on a Christian college campus, too many Christian Liberal Arts Institutions are narrowing the definition of “Christian”.

It’s a shame. It’s bad for the students. It’s bad for faculty members struggling with what it means to be faithful Christians in an era of immense social change. It’s bad for the churches to which students hopefully will return and that faculty invest in. Ultimately, it’s bad for the Christian Liberal Arts Institutions themselves.

A more robust sense of mission would bring back questioning students who see Christian colleges as places that close off debate. It would produce a vibrant academic community that was unafraid to tackle the key issues of the day. It would allow a prophetic voice for which the colleges have longed for decades. And, as Alan Noble points out in the piece above (and others he has written) it has the potential to excite the philanthropic community that could set Christian Liberal Arts Institution on a remarkable path for decades to come.

Taking the Long View: Robert Putnam’s The Upswing

The acknowledgements section of The Upswing contains a surprising note from Robert Putnam. In thanking his wife, he confesses that he had promised her that his 2015 Our Kids would be his last book. It was interesting to read his apology at the end of the book as it brings forth the big question of what motivated him to write it.

In many ways, Putnam picks up the themes he addressed in Bowling Alone, American Grace, and Our Kids. In all three books, he had explored society’s turn away from more traditional communitarianism. In the first, he argued that people were less likely to belong to community organizations. In the second, he (and co-author David Campbell) documented the major changes in American religion in the second half of the 20th century. In the third, he examined the ways in which economic and social inequality were replicated in American families — a condition he felt was very different from his own upbringing in 1950s small town Ohio.

What’s different about Upshift is the timeframe that he used. Rather than beginning somewhere mid-20th century, as these analyses often do, he begins in 1913. That longer timeline provides a different perspective in that what had looked like decline is seen as increase, plateau, and then decline. Examining a range of data points on economic, political, social, and cultural variables, he argues that the composite factors lay out in a curvilinear fashion with moves toward increased economic fairness, political compromise, social stability, and social responsibility for the first 50 years before reversing, in many ways ending even up worse than they were in the Gilded Age.

[As an aside, I should mention a quick analysis I did a few years ago on membership in the United Methodist Church. We tend to focus on the post-70s decline but the slope of the growth curve prior to 1950 creates exactly this curve.]

For each of the four factors Putnam explores, a similar pattern emerges. Take economics for example. There is data on the growth of educational attainment in the early part of the century. This is complimented with changes to income and wealth over time, shifts in tax policy, and the degree of upward mobility. In each of those areas, there is a move toward lessened inequality in post WW2 society which plateaus until the early 1970s and then falls precipitously (Putnam always orients “better” as “up”.) This argument is very similar to what Robert Reich argued in his 2011 Aftershock, where a period of general middle class economic wellbeing gives way to increased concentration of wealth at the top of the income/wealth spectrum.

Unfortunately, Putnam doesn’t share the equations used to combine all of his various indices into the solid line summary shown above. If you aren’t statistically inclined, you might be glad of that but I was frustrated by not being able to conceptually understand how all these features come together.

The politics chapter uses data on voting patterns, ticket splitting, attitudes toward the other party, faith in government, and belief in government operations. These improve over the first half of the time period before falling rapidly to levels today below those early in the 20th century.

The society chapter draws on religion, family, marriage and children, membership in social organizations, union engagement, and generalized social trust. The cultural chapter (probably the weakest) uses Ngrams from publishing to show how individual focus (for example on wanting unique baby names) give way to consensus (common baby names) and back. The authors contrast the prevalence of “rights” language as opposed to “responsibility” language.

Putnam and Garrett have a chapter on Race and a chapter on Gender. In each chapter, they demonstrate the ways in which the general upward patterns present in the previous chapters didn’t work the same way for Blacks and Women. This is helpful data in exploring the uniqueness of these subgroups within society but I found it somewhat confusing in that they were part of generic data present in the previous chapters. Putnam asserts that the most significant period of economic and social strengthening for Blacks was in the period immediately prior to the 1964-65 civil rights legislation. He also argues that the growth in the role of Women in society was more significant in the first half of the century than it was after the 1970s feminist movement. The picture of Women in society is limited by data showing women working out of economic necessity and still being burdened by the “second shift” problem of being responsible for household duties.

In many ways, I came away from The Upswing feeling that it was a marvelous compilation of data in search of a coherent explanatory framework. In the closing chapter, the authors struggle to find the theoretical answer to what drives the patterns in the curves above. Does economic inequality drive political isolation? Is it a shift away from religion or traditional family that drives cultural individualism? Which ones are the leading indicators and which are lagging indicators?

The authors examine a number of changes between 1968 and 1978. Beginning with the assassinations of JFK, MLK and RFK, riots ranging from Detroit to the Chicago Democratic Convention to Student protests of the Vietnam war, Watergate, and the stagflation that burdened the Carter administration. They suggest that these social disruptions pit sectors of society against each other, substituting subgroup passions for a collective sense of social identity.

The book, while commendable for exploring such a long time horizon, would have benefitted from a better theoretical orientation. I would argue that economic inequality is a principal driver with the political sphere being a direct result of that. The social and cultural realms respond to those two structural conditions. Yes, I’m an economic determinist who believes that ideological structures are built as representations of core distributions of money and power. (That’s more Weber than Marx, by the way.)

I was also surprised at the relative inattention to the huge impact of suburbanization as driver of social change, especially as encouraged by government policy. Media could also have used more attention as a mechanism through which social changes are labeled (even today protests are framed as destruction of property).

In working through tremendous data over the span on a century, the book seems to miss the role of power in creating the shifts the authors document. One of the dynamics of social change is that powerful structures can stand in the way. Every one of the social disruptions of “the sixties” became an opportunity for upstart groups to challenge the powers-that-be. But they also become an opportunity for those powers-that-be to keep those upstart groups at bay or to coopt them or to redirect their efforts in ways that protect basic structures.

This morning, my friend Paul Djupe shared an analysis arguing that Christian Nationalists weren’t dealing with concerns over potential oppression but over a concern for Social Dominance. I think that argument can be generalized to explain that changes Putnam documents. One of Paul’s scale questions dealt with the idea that people should “stay in their place.”

The more social changes might demand accommodation from those with who held power in the periods of quiet consensus, the more those in power will push back. Economic inequality, political polarization, social isolation, and loss of “the common good” might be a small price to pay to maintain the status quo.

How it Started/How It’s Going: Real America Edition

There’s been a cute trend on social media recently. One shares a picture from some earlier time and one that’s more current. I’ve seen these contrasting young children with their adult selves, with couples at first meeting and now years into marriage, or pre-pandemic (remember then?) and today. The little game communicates both stability and change over time.

As the Trump campaign and their allies have attempted to litigate and re-litigate and re-re-litigate the 2020 election results, I kept hearing echoes of familiar themes. When the Texas lawsuit (outrageously endorsed by most of the Republican establishment and thankfully — but expectedly — stopped at the Supreme Court) complained of the votes in their four target swing states, it spoke of alleged problems in their large cities. Giuliani said, without evidence beyond questionable affidavits, that these cities had long been sources of fraud. In other words, these Democrat[ic] cities cannot be trusted with fair elections and that those who voted for Trump had been disenfranchised somehow.

How does such an argument make any sense? Because Real America is only those parts of the country that voted for Trump.

In October of 2008, VP candidate Sarah Palin spoke to supporters at a fundraiser in Greensboro, North Carolina. Her remarks, which were striking at the time but soon became part of her stump speech, suggested a narrow view of who Real Americans were.

“We believe that the best of America is not all in Washington, D.C. We believe” — here the audience interrupted Palin with applause and cheers — “We believe that the best of America is in these small towns that we get to visit, and in these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America, being here with all of you hard working very patriotic, um, very, um, pro-America areas of this great nation. This is where we find the kindness and the goodness and the courage of everyday Americans. Those who are running our factories and teaching our kids and growing our food and are fighting our wars for us. Those who are protecting us in uniform. Those who are protecting the virtues of freedom (emphasis mine).”

I could point out that there are lots of factories in urban areas (or their suburbs), that there are teachers working hard and loving their students, and that military service is a common path for social mobility for urban minority populations. But that’s not the heart of her statement. Her claim was that rural America is where you find Real Americans and we can’t be sure about people who live in the urban areas, particularly those on the coasts.

I’m sure that Palin wasn’t the first to express such sentiments. They likely are echoes from early century populism. But I remember when I heard these comments and the resulting sense that I was being discounted from who counts as American.

I was reminded this week (thanks to a post from Rob Schenck) of Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers In Their Own Land –my 2016 review is here. She tells the story of residents of rural Louisiana who have come to feel that they have been left behind and that our political institutions don’t care about them. They don’t like being told how they’re supposed to feel about guns or religion or gays.

It is true that Democratic candidates haven’t helped those fears. Obama’s “clinging to guns and religion” and Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables” comments fed into the perceived disrespect of the Real Americans (resulting in great sales of Deplorables t-shirts). Romney’s unfortunate comments about “47% of the electorates were takers” who wanted free stuff also fit their theory.

But the media has fallen over themselves trying to understand these rural and small town Republicans who were so central to Trump’s election races. There have been far too many “man in diner” stories where the interviewee repeats Fox News talking points and the journalist takes them at face value. Yet, the distrust of the media has only increased, part of the great conspiracy to deprive Real Americans from their due.

Trump distinguished himself among presidents in only caring about his base. He elevated these Real Americans to a position of prominence they believed they hadn’t gotten before and they loved it. It is no surprise that the geography of Trump Rallies are what they are. Even last week he didn’t go to the Atlanta area (where Republicans need to staunch the bleeding in their suburban support) but to Valdosta. Because Real Americans live in Valdosta and not in Atlanta.

He has centered urban areas like Baltimore, Seattle, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Detroit in his speeches and tweets and suggests that they are broken hell-holes, good only for rats and crime. His administration has made no effort to address challenges in those urban areas, opting for photo ops and vague claims (enterprise zones!).

It is no surprise, then, that Trump caravans were popular in blue state areas. It doesn’t take a huge showing to make a video splash and disrupt traffic, giving a middle-finger to the blue-leaning cities in the process. It is no surprise that a teenager would travel from his small town in Illinois and drive to Kenosha to protect businesses from Antifa, murdering two people in the process.

Which brings us to Rudy and friends making accusations about fraud. Because they begin with a generalized distrust of a place like Detroit, it’s easy to suggest that ballots were discovered and dead people voted and ballots were backdated. [By the way, when I lived in Illinois 40 years ago, a Tribune opinion writer said “dead people vote in Chicago and cows vote downstate.”) For so many votes to have been cast for Biden in Wayne County something had to be fishy (it couldn’t be that the city has a large minority presence and Biden won those populations by over 80%). There must have been fraud.

This winds up being a self-fulfilling prophecy. Only Real American votes count and everybody else cannot be trusted, as The Atlantic‘s Adam Serwer wrote a couple of days ago. As I write this, a “stop the steal” rally is underway in Washington. Because Real Americans voted for Trump and states certified Biden as the winner, obviously the election was stolen.

Palin’s comments, surprising in 2008 to the point that the campaign walked them back, has become the default position of the Republican Party. Texas GOP chair Allen West (who was outrageous as a Florida congressman) suggests secession is in order. People like Michael Flynn suggest we need to overturn the election to protect “the soul of America”.

This puts remarkable pressure on President-Elect Biden. He has made it clear through the campaign that he, too, wants to heal the soul of America. But he means ALL of America, not just a part.

Moving forward from where we are now will require a very different approach to our politics, our reporting, and our sociological analysis. If we are to bridge these divides, and that’s a big if, we will need to find common stories regardless of geography. We will need concrete solutions at local, state, and national levels to the issues that the Pandemic has made visible that we would prefer to ignore. And somehow, we will need to learn to trust our neighbors — rural and urban — again.

I’ve started reading The Upswing by Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett. It traces the ways in which America was characterized by individualism and inequality in the first part of the 20th century, saw that shift to better social cohesion post WWII, and then return to its earlier character over the last 50 years. Their point is that we can change if we choose to. It will be a hard road, but the optimist in me says that there is still hope.

The 2020 Election: When Prophecy Fails

The November election was called by the election desks three weeks ago today. When all the dust settles on December 14, President-elect Biden will win 306 electoral votes to President Trump’s 232. Biden’s popular vote lead has now crested an astonishing six million votes. In the meantime, the Trump campaign has pursued a couple of recounts with minimal success (the Biden lead in Milwaukee actually increased) and a series of state and federal level lawsuits with virtually no success.

And yet, as numerous observers have noted, Trump supporters — especially of the evangelical celebrity class — continue to argue that the election will not only be overturned, but that Trump actually won in a landslide.

How can all these people (and potentially millions who support them) continue to believe this stuff? I suggested earlier this week that one answer can be found in When Prophecy Fails by Leon Festinger, Henry Reiken, and Stanley Schacter. The book, written in 1956, was a field study of Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance.

I re-read the book on Tuesday (only $0.99 on Kindle!) and was amazed at how helpful it was. Festinger had argued that having attitudes and behaviors that were in conflict created cognitive dissonance, a state of discomfort. There were several ways to resolve the dissonance: change the conflicting behavior/attitude, reduce the salience of the offending attitude, or add some new element to the mix that resolved the dissonance.

When Prophecy Fails (hereafter WPF) describes a real-life test of cognitive dissonance theory that seemingly dropped into the authors’ laps. In September of 1954, a group in Lake City (Chicago) with assistance from others in Collegeville (Lansing) announced that they had received word that a major cataclysm was going to occur that coming December 21. Massive earthquakes would result in flooding that would swamp most of central North America. Festinger and his co-authors, along with some other informants, joined the group in November and stayed in contact through December. [There are some interesting questions about the ethics of joining the group. By surreptitiously becoming a part, they may have added self-perceived legitimacy to the group members.]

A predicted cataclysm was exactly the kind of disconfirmation that would produce cognitive dissonance. All of the activity surrounding the system of belief — readings, meetings, messages from outer space, plans for the group’s rescue via flying saucer — would be put at risk if things didn’t come to pass. How would they resolve such a crisis of faith?

Now what is the effect of the disconfirmation, of the unequivocal fact that the prediction was wrong, upon the believer? The disconfirmation introduces an important and painful dissonance. The fact that the predicted events did not occur is dissonant with continuing to believe both the prediction and the remainder of the ideology of which the prediction was the central item. The failure of the prediction is also dissonant with all the actions that the believer took in preparation for its fulfillment. The magnitude of the dissonance will, of course, depend on the importance of the belief to the individual and on the magnitude of his preparatory activity (20).

But there is a way in which the remaining dissonance can be reduced. If more and more people can be persuaded that the system of belief is correct, then clearly it must, after all, be correct. … If the proselyting proves successful, then by gathering more adherents and effectively surrounding himself with supporters, the believer reduces dissonance to the point where he can live with it (21).

The leaders of the group (the authors call them Marion Keech and Thomas Armstrong) had long been religiously eclectic. They had been studying scientology, reincarnation, UFO sightings, seances, receiving involuntary writings, and more. (This is consistent with other sociological models on conversion to marginal religious groups.) Given their sources of information, the notion that a messenger named Sanandra from the planet Clarion would warn them of God’s plan for the coming cataclysm and then prepare them for their rescue would not be met with the levels of skepticism one might expect.

There are series of disconfirming events: the UFO’s don’t come, there is uncertainty about visitors who may or not from outer space, and finally, there are no earthquakes. But following this final disconfirming event, they make themselves more available to visitors and the press (including a public invitation to Christmas caroling), willing to explain their theoretical system to anyone who would listen. At least that’s how it worked for the True Believers — more fringe members simply drifted away.

On December 21 alone, Dr. Armstrong and Mrs. Keech made five tape recordings for radio broadcast. Within the next three days, Marian’s messages were used as reasons for drawing up new press releases and lifting the ban on photographers. Twice more the press was called in and their reception was warm and friendly. Reporters were granted extensive interviews and photographers welcomed (151).

There is much in WPF that has parallels to our current moment after the election results were known. First, there is a focus on self-confirming information sources (OANN) with access to unique information only known to the insiders (Q Anon conspiracies). Those certain of a massive Trump victory could support their predictions by pointing to esoteric knowledge (Jeff Sharlet recently argued it is a new Gnosticism) that gave them better insights. From Paula White calling on African Angels to belief in the Shy Trump Voters, forces were in play to provide a Trump victory in spite of what polls said.

Public relations events are part of this mythology. Trump Rallies with thousands supposedly turned away, Trump Truck Parades, Boat Parades, could all be used to assert an undeniable force of support. It’s no surprise that Rudy Giuliani’s favorite tactic is to call a press conference or a “hearing” to use selected media to repeat claims he can’t legally make in court.

Belief in the disaster of massive voter fraud through mail-in balloting was rampant among the True Believers (even if many of them voted absentee). The massive fraud was assumed as a force to be defeated. This is buttressed by the inclusion of affidavits which claim process issues like where observers could stand or how someone was treated. They aren’t fraud but with all of these loose threads, there must be a major story here. (insert old joke about a Christmas pony here).

Those evangelical leaders who had positioned themselves so strongly as Trump supporters didn’t have a way to eliminate their dissonance. The disconfirmation of the loss was too great (contrasted with the transactional support for Trump over judges). They haven’t simply supported a preferred candidate but have argued that the alternative would end society as we know it. They drew on their religious bona fides to buttress their argument and now they can’t back down without putting those at risk. (Just ask those evangelical leaders what happened on social media when they suggested Biden won!)

Increased proselytization comes as Sidney Powell spins wider and wilder theories asserting that the algorithms in voting machine, created by foreign dictators and supported by Republican leaders across the country had actually turned a Trump victory into a supposed Biden win. That argument eventually became too much for the Trump Campaign and she was cut loose (unless you’re a True Believer and then this was part of the plan all along).

But a milder version of the belief system continues regardless of disconfirmation. Surely, as Eric Trump argued, something is amiss if Biden could get all those votes when he didn’t leave his basement! Which is, of course, the way in which these closed information loops work.

What happens to these True Believers after Inauguration Day is an open-ended question. In all likelihood, they will continue undeterred in their belief that the election was stolen from them because that’s what they’ve been told for so long.

At the end of WPF, Marion Kreech and Dr. Armstrong were both threatened with involuntary commitment and left the midwest. While continuing to speak to fringe groups (probably at the kinds of hotels Rudy holds hearings at), they eventually disappear from the scene.

Of course, as long as there is OANN and Newsmax (Fox is so passe), there will be places for Trump and Giuliani and Ellis and Powell to tell their stories. And there will be a ready group of listeners who are already predisposed to believe them.

Festinger and colleagues would argue that the group of listeners would shrink over time. They found that the central figures of UFO group took the move into more active proselytizing. Yet the more fringe members simply faded into the background and tried not to bring up their involvement at Christmas parties.

We’ll need to revisit the situation next November to see if the fringe falls away as life returns to some version of normal. But I expect the True Believers will remain for years to come.

UPDATE 12/13/20

Since I wrote this two weeks ago, the Texas Attorney General filed a lawsuit in the Supreme Court requesting the votes in four of the contested states to be invalidated. Over 2/3 of Republican AGs and Republican members of the House signed amicii briefs (as did the lawyer for New California and New Nevada!). The Safe Harbor date was reached by which electoral college members were locked in. And last Friday afternoon, the Supreme Court refused to take up the Texas case (with Alito and Thomas saying they’d hear the case but decline the merits). Tomorrow, the Electoral College formally votes Joe Biden the president-elect.

So it’s over, right? Not if you’re a True Believer.

Yesterday was the Jericho Walk rally in Washington DC. I only followed on Twitter. But it’s worth reading the reflections of conservative writers David French and Rod Dreher to get a sense of the ways in which the most vocal fans of Donald Trump have doubled-down to resolve the cognitive dissonance of their election loss. It’s pretty much what Festinger and friends would have expected.

UPDATE TWO: January 20, 2021

Ben Collins and Brandy Zadrozny from NBC News have kept an eye on the QAnon movement over recent months so the rest of us don’t have to. If you weren’t aware, the Great Awakening was supposed to happen today — where all the cannibal liberals would be arrested and Trump would be established as ongoing president with the support from the military. It would all happen just before noon today when the victors would take over all broadcast channels to start the trials.

This afternoon, they have continued to monitor Q conversations. Needless to say, a number of QAnon supporters are disillusioned that nothing happened and Joe Biden is president.

In QAnon chats captured by the fact-checking technology company Logically.AI and reviewed by NBC News, QAnon supporters drew hard lines shortly before the inauguration began and felt instantly embarrassed when the coup did not occur.

“God help us we’re beyond ready. If nothing happens I will no longer believe in anything,” said one supporter at the beginning of inauguration.

“We all just got played,” said another, moments later.

I’ve seen some tweets of supporters suggesting that “this is all part of the plan” and that the big reveal will come in a couple of weeks. Those are the true believers and nothing is likely to dislodge them. Rush Limbaugh and One America News seem to be the last holdouts. Even the Proud Boys have moved on.

“What Do We Do Now?” — Stacy Abrams and the work before us

As a political junkie, I love movies about politics. Dave is my all time favorite and I’m still a sucker for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. But I often find myself thinking about 1972’s The Candidate. In that movie, which won an Oscar for best screenplay, Robert Redford plays an upstart candidate for Senate from California running against a long-term establishment incumbent. It tracks the ins and outs of his improbable campaign, managed by the inimitable Peter Boyle (Young Frankenstein and Everybody Loves Raymond). At the end of the film, Redford’s candidate prevails. In the very final scene, Redford turns to Boyle and asks, “What Do We Do Now?”

This scene is central to my thinking that governing is more important than campaigning. The nuts and bolts of consensus building far outstrip the enthusiasm we have for election contests. Given yesterday’s court decision in Pennsylvania, we may be finally approaching the end of this election cycle (regardless of what now-former Trump lawyer Sidney Powell claims). Yes, there are still the two Senate runoffs in Georgia, but it’s time to think about what’s next.

Last week I finished listening to Stacey Abrams’ Our Time is Now. It is a primer on the key issues in extending the vote to underserved populations and combatting attempts at voter suppression. Her organizing, along with that of similar organizations across Georgia, was key to Biden’s victory in the state.

Following Abrams’ lead, there is much work for progressives to do in the coming twelve months. Republicans are already talking about investigating mail-in ballot processes in their quixotic search for their elusive voter fraud. Unless there is concerted effort to set some guidelines for how those ballots are processed, claims like those we’ve seen over the last three weeks will continue. States like Oregon, Colorado, and California need to be the models for how these ballots are processed as they have been using these processes for years.

Whether voting by mail or voting in person, we need to carefully distinguish between simple challenges to process (signature challenges, new address, failure to sign the envelope, voting at the wrong precinct) from invalid votes. Characterizing these errors as potential fraud is simply attempted voter suppression. Curing ballots is a fair process and should be easily available. Voting isn’t some trap where if you don’t get everything exactly right you get disenfranchised. Our default position should be to make it as easy to legally vote as possible.

In that regard, there need to be major changes in the availability of polling locations. Some consideration of a ratio of population distribution to the number of voting sites is essential. Texas’ idea of having one drop box per county is problematic for those in big cities (population) and those in big counties (geography). The goal must be to make access to voting simpler.

If states are going to rely on voter identification through driver’s licenses or other official cards, they need to consider those urban dwellers who don’t drive or the elderly who no longer drive. If photo IDs are not made readily available to all potential voters, then some other forms of identification should be allowed (multiple pieces of mail from government sources, for example).

We need to rethink how we process ballots when they arrive. It’s clear from the recent election that laws allowing mail-in ballots to be treated as early voting and processed (but not counted) prior to election day are reasonable. Not allowing votes to be counted until after the polls close is what created the crazy (yet predicted) scenario this cycle. We also need to clarify the roles of election judges, poll watchers, and partisan observers. The observers are there to represent their party but it is the judges and the poll watchers (who also represent the parties) who evaluate the quality of the ballots.

Of course, when there is actual fraud it needs to be prosecuted. Not on the basis of someone’s imagination, but real cases like the two cases uncovered in Pennsylvania: one who tried to vote using his dead mother’s ballot and another who tried to pass himself off as his son at the poll when he had already voted (both Republicans). If there is fraud via mail-in ballots, it must be proven and not asserted.

There should probably be some limits place on when and under what circumstances elections can be challenged. Automatic recounts are fine but frivolous lawsuits attempting to litigate a settled vote should be met with harsh penalties from judges. Saturday’s Pennsylvania decision was a good example of the kind of response these cases should receive.

Progressives have long pushed back at election law changes by rightly complaining about attempts at voter suppression. But that leaves them in a reactive mode. What we need now is a major push to fix those aspects of the voting system that would increase the franchise to more people. That will likely involve some tradeoffs with conservatives but major gains are possible if action is taken before we get close to the 2022 midterm election cycle.

The high road going forward is to make voting accessible to as many citizens as possible in ways that are fair and safe. We have serious work to do.

Confronting Institutional Sin: A Church Called Tov

Sociologists like me tend to focus on institutional arrangements and organizational culture when analyzing particular moments. It’s not that we don’t care about individual action, it’s that often those actions are contingent upon these larger issues. So that what seems like an individual action really needs to be examined in its broader context.

Given my preferred mode of analysis, I was particularly excited to recently read A Church Called Tov by Scot McKnight and Laura Barringer. Having read Scot’s earlier book on congregation life, A Fellowship of Differents, as part of a Sunday School class I lead, I knew it would be worthwhile.

I was pleased to find the book much more than “worthwhile”. It spoke to serious problems in some local churches and paid attention to the organizational and cultural forces contributing to those forces right off the top. In doing so, it painted a picture of what is required for “institutional repentance”, something I’ve been thinking about for a long time. In a blog post six years ago, I wrote the following:

Somewhere, we need to acknowledge the sinfulness of the structural arrangements. We need to find ways of structurally repenting. This may not be reparations, but it must be something. At the very least, it is to tell the truth about wrongs (dare I say sins?).

Tov begins by acknowledging wrongs the church would often prefer not to discuss. It opens with the Bill Hybels crisis at Willow Creek Community Church, telling the story of what happened at WCCC and examining the variety of factors that allowed the abuse to go on for so long and to be covered up by a culture than minimized wrongdoing, celebrated celebrity, ostracized critics, and denied the truth (even after it was reported in the mainstream press).

McKnight and Barringer elaborate on the nature of toxic church culture by exploring the issues in Harvest Bible Church, Sovereign Grace Ministries, the story of Jules Woodson and Andy Savage, and others. They write of the myriad ways in which dysfunctional cultures frame narratives, protect insiders, and demonize critics.

The second half of the book refers to the title: Tov means Good. Church cultures should be about the production of good in all segments of church life. Those cultures require empathy, grace, truth, justice, and service. If these last eight chapters of the book were all there was, it would still be a good book about what healthy culture looks like. But it would have likely seemed like just so many platitudes and would certainly fail to be as important of a book.

McKnight and Barringer tell the truth about dysfunctional culture and then work from there to explore how to repair cultures to their intended state. It quickly reminded me of the Restorative Justice class I taught every couple of years. The purpose of restorative justice is to restore things to how they ought to be.

I always started that class with Desmond Tutu’s No Future Without Forgiveness, the story of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Tutu writes that there was danger in simply moving on from the atrocities of apartheid as if nothing happened. There was also danger in Nuremberg style tribunals. The “third way” was to allow people to tell the truth of what happened, for those responsible to admit their role, and to then move toward healing.

This is precisely how Church Called Tov opens. It forces us to see the wrongs that were done, to lament those wrongs, to hear repentance from those responsible, and to make the necessary changes in structures and changes for the Church to be Good.

Since I finished the book, Carl Lentz of Hillsong NY was forced out of his congregation for an affair involving an imagined identity. The stories that followed the initial news have wrestled with celebrity culture, power and control, and even the hip personal of the tattooed pastor in skinny jeans.

The Jerry Fallwell, Jr. story continues to swirl with new and more salacious details. The Southern Baptist Church recently refused to take any meaningful steps in holding accountable those who knew of minister transgressions. The Cardinal McCarrick scandal was apparently known by the Pope but nothing was done.

Telling the truth about dysfunctional institutional structures and organizational cultures is vitally important. It is needed in Higher Education as universities shed trusted faculty members. It is needed in our political circles where power is preeminent and any means necessary thinking is far too common. It is needed in our churches where younger Christians find themselves on the outside for supporting their LGBTQ+ friends. It is needed in city governments and police departments who fail to recognize the myriad ways in which their structures and cultures harm people of color.

If, rather than seeking to defend existing turf, these various institutional structures began by naming those dysfunctional elements of their culture and systems, we’d be in a place where we were more attentive to what is Tov for everybody.